Sawantwadi’s Traditional Handmade Toys Struggle for Survival

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Arts

Shashikant Rane with his wooden fruits. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Shashikant Rane with his wooden fruits. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

PUNE, Jun 14 2024 (IPS) – Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, on the western coast of India, bordering Goa, has always been known for its wooden toys. A picturesque town amid hills and lush greenery, Sawantwadi retains an old-world charm to this day.  The regal Sawantwadi Palace holds pride of place, with colleges, schools, and temples cloistered around the periphery of the lake, which was once an extension of the royal grounds.  In the centre of the town is the Ubha Bazaar, or Hanging Market, which houses rows of shops selling the iconic wooden toys that are a hallmark of Sawantwadi.


The wooden toys of Sawantwadi are a legacy that the previous rulers nurtured, and they reflect the spirit of the area. Generations of children in Maharashtra and Goa have grown up playing with the life-like depictions of fruits, people, and the pull-along toys that were a necessary part of growing up. But today, these painstakingly carved, hand-made toys made of Pongamia and mango wood are struggling for survival. The once-bustling hilltop market in downtown Sawantwadi, known as Ubha Bazaar (Hanging Market), is now a ghost of what it once was. The artisan families who manufactured and sold these toys from their workshops-cum-homes are now reduced to a handful.

So, what caused the busy hands of these artisans to fall silent?

By the looks of it, several factors are responsible.

Female musicians in concert. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Female musicians in concert. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Backgrounder

Unlike the cheap machine-made toys that flood the market today, toys are a traditional craft in India, commanding a hoary lineage from the era of the Indus Valley civilization. Like many other centers in India, Sawantwadi always boasted gifted artisans capable of painstakingly breathing life into wood and carving out an array of life-like figures inspired by everyday life. Over the decades, the life-like depiction of fruits and vegetables was always been a specialty of Sawantwadi craftsmen. Of course, there were other toys too, for every age group of children: pull-along toys for toddlers, kitchen sets for little girls, bullock carts and other vehicles for bigger children, as well as spoons, cutters, and ladles used in the kitchen. What always made these toys stand out was the environment-friendly techniques and colors that were used to produce them.

Toy-making in Sawantwadi had its origins in the arrival of  Telangana Brahmins in the 17th century, who visited the kingdom to take part in religious debates with the then ruler, Khem Sawant II, who was extremely well-versed in Hindu religious scriptures and philosophy. The Chitrali artisans who arrived with the Brahmins brought the craft of toy-making and ganjifa (playing cards) to Sawantwadi.

Ideally suited to the greenery and scenic landscape of Sawantwadi, toy-making here made use of Pongamia and mango wood, which thrived in the thick forests here. The wood used for the toys would be collected in the summer and, after being washed and dried, left out to get thoroughly soaked during the entire monsoon. After thorough drying, they would be carved as per the desired shape. Once the toys were carved out, they would be covered with five layers of earth and left aside for a certain period of time. The lathe would then be used in this stage to impart the desired shape and finish. They would be painted with a powdery mixture made of tamarind and other seeds once dusted off and smoothed with sandpaper. After applying several coats of paint, a coat of lacquer and natural gum would add the finishing touches.  To this day, the lacquer used in Sawantwadi toys is their special feature. It is durable and never fades or chips away, no matter how roughly the toys are used. When toy-making was on the verge of fading out at one point in time, the local royal family gave it an impetus in the early 1970s. Primarily responsible for this shot in the arm were the Queen, Maharani Satvashila Devi and her husband, the reigning king, Rajesaheb Khem Sawant VI, Lt Colonel Shivram Sawant Bhonsale. The reigning royal family also set up a workshop to make hand-painted ganjifa cards at the palace, which is functional to this day.

Sawantwadi Palace grounds. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Sawantwadi Palace grounds. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Difficulties in Procuring Inputs

Historically, Sawantwadi was a vassal state of the mighty Maratha empire. When the British defeated the Marathas, Sawantwadi continued to exist as a small principality with a benign ruler during the British Raj.  The erstwhile British Resident’s home in downtown Sawantwadi, at a stone’s throw from the Palace, testifies to those bygone days. The early years of the 20th century saw Sawantwadi thrive in matters of education and culture, with the rulers also making efforts to nurture traditional crafts and artisans.

In recent times, however, deforestation has made it difficult to get adequate supplies of pangara (Pongamia) wood, while mango is not suitable for products that need the lathe machine.  Artisans have now turned to Acacia, Shivan (Gmelina Arborea) and Glyricidea, compromising on the quality of the toys.  Glyricidea has particularly emerged as a favorite, notwithstanding its being environmentally unsound and causing rats to overrun homes.

Lack of skilled artisans

The painstaking nature of the job, the difficulties in procuring wood and other inputs, and an uncertain market that cannot guarantee earnings in keeping with the efforts put in have resulted in many skilled artisans moving out of the industry and opting for employment elsewhere.  Industrialization in the neighboring districts has also been a big draw, while government initiatives to train young artisans in wood carving have been lackadaisical at best.

Very few can carve wood now, unlike in the past. So, instead of carving out a toy, the prevailing trend is to fill up sawdust into ready moulds. This also helps keep costs low and is not labour-intensive.  Shashikant Rane, one of the very few remaining master craftsmen in Sawantwadi, who the government approached about opening a Hastkala (handicrafts) Kendra (centre), tells me, “I entered the profession in the early 1960s, thanks to my father, who had received special training from Abha Gawde, a well-known master in the craft. Traditional toy-making requires a great deal of patience, starting with the procurement of the right wood. You procure the wood in May but cannot work on it until a few months later. In these times of quick turnarounds and massive profits, few are willing to put in the effort,” he points out.

Rane has been training 30 youngsters in the craft every year at his modest workshop-cum-home and is a much sought-after craftsman for prominent projects all over India. Referring to the government’s lackadaisical approach to training artisans, Rane tells me,  “The Minister-In-Charge had identified the venue for setting up the Hastkala Kendra and spoken to me about his vision at length.  But it is over a year now, and the plan still awaits finalization.”

Unfair Competition and Dwindling Demand

There are other factors, too. Cheap Chinese machine-made toys have also made consumers move away from these beautiful, hand-carved toys, which, owing to rising input costs, sell at higher rates. One also perceives a change in taste. P D Kanekar and Company, a prominent seller of toys in Sawantwadi, has moved to manufacture non-traditional toys in recent years.  Ankita Kanekar, from the Kanekar family, tells me, “Pangara (Pongamia) wood was always used to make life-like fruits and vegetables in the past. But no one is interested in playing with those now, unlike the previous generation.  Pangara trees are only available in a few villages now. Besides, a single set takes around one and a half months to be made. The work is painstaking and exacting, and the return is very little. There are very few good artisans practicing the trade.”

She also blames the current transport infrastructure for dwindling sales. “Earlier, the road links from Mumbai and Pune passed through Sawantwadi. But the highways now skirt our town.”

Changing tastes are evident when one browses through the shops today. Imitations of machine-made toys hold pride of place as compared to the artistic depictions of musicians, vegetable -sellers, or fishermen in traditional attire. It is tough to spot a bunch of bananas or betelnuts either.

Lack of government support is another major factor.

The active support of the ruling royal family had bolstered the toy industry in the previous century. This kind of support is no longer forthcoming. The lack of a strong toymakers’ cooperative or guild is also partly to blame. “There is no unity among the various people in the trade to negotiate in one voice with the authorities and demand guarantees or protective subsidies,” rues a prominent toymaker, requesting anonymity.

Consequently, Sawantwadi toys were devoid of geographic identification (GI) until now.

Light at the End of a Tunnel

As I write this, toymakers are jubilant about a GI tag having been granted to Sawantwadi wooden toys on March 30, 2024. This opens up a new vista for them. Toymakers like PD Kanekar have already taken to selling their toys online. “ We started selling online during the pandemic when everything shut down,” Ankita Kanekar tells me. The Kanekars sell through the DirectCreate platform to buyers all over India. Otherwise, sales are made to wholesalers based in Goa, who, in turn, sell to those traveling to India. This is because “international courier services are not yet developed from Sawantwadi. ”

Even so, with Goa’s newly-opened MOPA airport just 15–16 km away, international tourists often come down to Sawantwadi to buy these iconic toys.

One could well say that the GI tag and the inclusivity it bestows on these beautiful handcrafted toys are a good beginning. However, a lot more needs to be done if these toys are to capture the attention of a global market. Improving the courier services as well as government subsidies to the makers could go a long way here.

IPS UN Bureau Report

IPS UN Bureau, IPS UN Bureau Report, India

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African Activists Call on the West to Finance Climate Action

Africa, Civil Society, Climate Change Finance, Climate Change Justice, Conferences, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Climate Change Finance

Activists at Bonn accuse developed countries of frustrating the process on climate finance. Pictured here are Danni Taaffe, Head of Communications at Climate Action Network (CAN), Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa and Sven Harmeling, Head of Climate at CAN. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Activists at Bonn accuse developed countries of frustrating the process on climate finance. Pictured here are Danni Taaffe, Head of Communications at Climate Action Network (CAN), Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa and Sven Harmeling, Head of Climate at CAN. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

BONN, Jun 13 2024 (IPS) – As the technical session of the global climate negotiations enters the final stretch in Bonn, Germany, climate activists from Africa have expressed fears that negotiators from the developed world are dragging their feet in a way to avoid paying their fair share to tackle the climate crisis.

“I think we will be unfair to the snail if we say that the Bonn talks have all along moved at a snail pace,” quipped Mohammed Adow, the Director, Power Shift Africa.


“Ideally, there will be no climate action anywhere without climate finance. Yet what we have seen is that developed countries are frustrating the process, blocking the UAE annual dialogues, which were agreed upon last year in Dubai, to focus on the delivery of finance so as to give confidence to developing countries to implement climate actions,” said Adow.

According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) dialogue was created to focus on climate finance in relation to implementing the first Global Stoke Take (GST-1) outcomes, with the rationale of serving as a follow up mechanism dedicated to climate finance, ensuring response to and/or monitoring of, as may be appropriate and necessary, all climate finance items under the GST

The two-week Bonn technical session of Subsidiary Bodies (SB60) was expected to develop an infrastructure for the New Collective Quantified Goal (NCQG), a climate change funding mechanism to raise the floor of climate finance for developing countries above the current $100 billion annual target.

In 2009, during the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) of the UNFCCC in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed that by 2020, they would collectively mobilize $100 billion per year to support priorities for developing countries in terms of adaptation to climate crisis, loss and damage, just energy transition and climate change mitigation.

When parties endorsed the Paris Agreement at COP 21 in 2015, they found it wise to set up the NCQG, which has to be implemented at the forthcoming COP 29, whose agenda has to be set at the SB60 in Bonn, providing scientific and technological advice, thereby shaping negotiations in Azerbaijan.

However, activists feel that the agenda being set in Bonn is likely to undermine key outcomes of previous negotiations, especially on climate finance.

“We came to Bonn with renewed hope that the NCQG discussions will be honest and frank with all parties committed to seeing that the finance mechanism will be based on the priorities and needs of developing countries and support country-driven strategies, with a focus on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs),” said Memory Zonde-Kachambwa, the Executive Director, FEMNET.

“Seeing the devastation climate change is causing in our countries in terms of floods, storms, and droughts, among other calamities, it was our hope that the rich countries would be eager and willing to indicate the Quantum as per Article 9.5 of the Paris Agreement so as to allow developing countries to plan their climate action,” she said.

So far, negotiators from the North have been pushing for collective “mobilization of financial resources,” which African activists believe is merely the privatization of climate finance within NCQG, thus surrendering poor countries to climate-debt speculators and further impoverishing countries clutching onto debt.

Also in the spotlight was the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA), where the activists feel that the means of implementation is being vehemently fought by the parties from developed countries.

“Adaptation must be funded from public resources and must not be seen as a business opportunity open to private sector players,” said Dr. Augustine Njamnshi, an environmental policy and governance law expert and the Executive Secretary of the African Coalition for Sustainable Energy and Access. “Without clear indications on the means of implementation, GGA is an empty shell and it is not fit-for-purpose.”

According to Ambassador Ali Mohammed, the incoming Chair for the African Group of Negotiators (AGN), the SB60 is an opportunity to rebuild trust in the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

“That trust can only be rebuilt if we come out of Bonn with a quantum that adequately covers the needs of the continent,” he said, noting that the figure Africa is asking for, which is to be part of the agenda for COP29, is USD 1.3 trillion per year by 2030.

IPS UN Bureau Report

 

Uniting for Climate Action: UN, World Bank and UNDRR Leaders Push for Climate Finance, Justice and Nature-Based Solutions for SIDS

Caribbean Climate Wire, Climate Action, Climate Change, Climate Change Finance, Climate Change Justice, Conferences, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Headlines, Humanitarian Emergencies, Latin America & the Caribbean, PACIFIC COMMUNITY, Pacific Community Climate Wire, Small Island Developing States, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Climate Change Finance

Panelists at SDG Media Zone at SIDS4, Antigua and Barbuda. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

Panelists at SDG Media Zone at SIDS4, Antigua and Barbuda. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

ANTIGUA & BARBUDA, May 29 2024 (IPS) – As leaders of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) meet for the 4th International Conference on SIDS in Antigua this week, top United Nations and World Bank officials are calling for urgent action to help SIDS tackle their unique challenges and plan for the next decade.


Selwin Hart, UN Special Adviser to the Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General of the Climate Action Team, had a frank assessment for a United Nations SDG Media Zone event on the sidelines of the conference, known as SIDS4

“The international community has failed to deliver on its commitments to these small nations, but it’s not too late to make amends,” he said.

Hart says the world has the ‘tools, solutions, technologies, and finance’ to support SIDS, but change lies in the political will of  the countries with the greatest responsibility and capacity, particularly G20 nations, which account for almost 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“A mere USD 3 billion of the USD 100 billion goal has been mobilized annually for the small island developing state and you compare that to the USD 36 billion in profit that Exxon Mobil made last year. It represents a tenth of the climate finance that SIDS are attracting and mobilizing. We need to correct these injustices and that has to be at the root of the global response to the demands and needs of  small island developing states.”

Nature-Based Solutions for Nations on the Frontlines of Climate Change
“Both natural and man-made disasters hit SIDS first,” the World Bank’s Global Director of Environment, Natural Resources, and Blue Economy, Valerie Hickey, told the Media Zone. She said that for this reason, the international lending body describes SIDS as “where tomorrow happens today,” a nod to small islands’ role as ‘innovation incubators,’ who must adapt to climate change through the creative and sustainable use of natural capital, biodiversity, and nature-based solutions.

She says nature capital also shifts the narrative, focusing less on the vulnerabilities of SIDS and more on their ingenuity.

“We don’t talk enough about the fact that small islands are where natural capital is the engine of jobs and GDP,” she said. “It is fisheries. It is nature-based tourism. These are critically important for most of the small islands and ultimately deliver not just jobs and GDP but are going to be the only technology for adaptation that is available and affordable, and affordability matters for small islands.”

For small island states seeking to adapt to a changing climate, nature-based solutions and ecosystem based adaptation are essential, but it is also necessary to tackle perennial problems that hinder growth and access to finance. That includes a dearth of current, relevant data.

“The data is too fragmented. It’s sitting on people’s laptops. It’s sitting on people’s shelves. Nobody knows what’s out there and that’s true for the private sector and the public sector,” she said.

“In the Caribbean, where there is excess capital sitting in retail banks, USD 50 billion of that can be used to invest in nature-based solutions judiciously, to work on the kind of longer-term infrastructure that would be fit for purpose both for disaster recovery and long-term growth—it’s not happening for lack of data.”

As part of SIDS4, the world’s small island developing states appear to be tackling this decades-long data problem head-on. At the event’s opening session, Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne said a much-promoted Centre of Excellence will be established at this conference and that this Global Data Hub for Innovative Technologies and Investment for SIDS will use data for decision-making, ensuring that SIDS’ ten-year Antigua and Barbuda Agenda (ABAS) is led by ‘accuracy and timeliness.’

Reducing Disaster Risk and Early Warning Systems for All

A discussion on SIDS is not complete without acknowledging the disproportionate impact of disasters on the island nations. Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Kamal Kishore, says mortality rates and economic losses from disasters are significantly higher in SIDS than the global average.

“If you look at mortality from disasters, the number of deaths normalized by the population of the countries, the mortality rate in SIDS is twice that of the rest of the world. If you look at economic losses as a proportion of GDP, globally it is under one percent; in SIDS, in a single event, countries have lost 30 percent of their GDP. SIDS have lost up to two-thirds of their GDP in a single event.”

Kishore says the ambition to reduce disaster losses must match the scale of the problem. He says early warning systems are a must and have to be seen by all not as generosity but responsibility.

“It is not acceptable that anybody on planet Earth should not have access to advanced cyclone or hurricane warnings. We have the technical wherewithal to generate forecasts and warnings. We have technologies to disseminate it. We know what communities need to do and what local governments need to do in order to respond to those warnings. Why is it not happening?”

The Early Warning for All initiative was launched by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in 2022. Kishore says 30 countries have been identified in the initial stage and a third of those countries are SIDS. Gap analyses have already been conducted and a road map has been prepared for strengthening early warning systems. The organization needs money to make it happen.

“The world needs to show some generosity and pick up the bill. It’s not in billions. It’s in millions and it will pay for itself in a single event. You invest in early warning in a country and one major event happens in the next five years, you’ve recovered your investment. The evidence is there that it makes financial sense, but we need to mobilize resources to close that gap.”

The Road Ahead

Thirty years since the first International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the three leaders agree that there is hope, but that hope is hinged on action—an approach to development in SIDS that involves financial investment, comprehensive data collection and management and nature-based adaptation measures.

“It’s not too late,” says Selwin Hart. “What we need now is the political will to make things right for small island developing states.”

IPS UN Bureau Report

 

Small Island Nations Demand Urgent Global Action at SIDS4 Conference

Caribbean Climate Wire, Civil Society, Climate Action, Climate Change, Climate Change Finance, Climate Change Justice, Conservation, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Latin America & the Caribbean, PACIFIC COMMUNITY, Pacific Community Climate Wire, Small Island Developing States, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations, Trade & Investment

Conferences

The once-in-a-decade SIDS Conference opened in Antigua and Barbuda today, with a clear message: the world already knows the challenges that SIDS face—now it’s time for action.

King Charles III of Britain addresses the opening ceremony of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States, May 27, 2024. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

King Charles III of Britain addresses the opening ceremony of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States, May 27, 2024. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

ANTIGUA, May 27 2024 (IPS) – “This year has been the hottest in history in practically every corner of the globe, foretelling severe impacts on our ecosystems and starkly underscoring the urgency of our predicament. We are gathered here not merely to reiterate our challenges, but to demand and enact solutions,” declared Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Brown at the opening of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States on May 27.


The world’s 39 small island developing states are meeting on the Caribbean island this week. It is a pivotal, once-a-decade meeting for small states that contribute little to global warming, but are disproportionately impacted by climate change. The Caribbean leader reminded the world that SIDS are being forced to survive crises that they did not create.

“The scales of equity and justice are unevenly balanced against us. The large-scale polluters whose CO2 emissions have fuelled these catastrophic climate changes bear a responsibility—an obligation of compensation to aid in our quest to build resilience,” he said.

“The Global North must honor its commitments, including the pivotal pledge of one hundred billion dollars in climate financing to assist with adaptation and mitigation as well as the effective capitalization and operationalization of the loss and damage fund. These are imperative investments in humanity, in justice, and in the equitable future of humanity.”

Urgent Support Needed from the International Community

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the gathering that the previous ten years have presented significant challenges to SIDS and hindered development. These include extreme weather events and the COVID-19 pandemic. He says SIDS, islands that are “exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally resilient, but exceptionally vulnerable,” need urgent support from the international community, led by the nations that are both responsible for the challenges they face and have the capacity to deal with them.

“The idea that an entire island state could become collateral damage for profiteering by the fossil fuel industry, or competition between major economies, is simply obscene,” the Secretary General said, adding, “Small Island Developing States have every right and reason to insist that developed economies fulfill their pledge to double adaptation financing by 2025. And we must hold them to this commitment as a bare minimum. Many SIDS desperately need adaptation measures to protect agriculture, fisheries, water resources and infrastructure from extreme climate impacts you did virtually nothing to create.”

Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS)

The theme for SIDS4 is Charting the Course Toward Resilient Prosperity and the small islands have been praised for collective action in the face of crippling crises. Their voices were crucial to the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

Out of this conference will come the Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS). President of the UN General Assembly, Dennis Francis, says that programme of action will guide SIDS on a path to resilience and prosperity for the next decade.

“ The next ten years will be critical in making sustained concrete progress on the SIDS agenda – and we must make full use of this opportunity to supercharge our efforts around sustainability,” he said.

The SIDS4 conference grounds in Antigua and Barbuda will be a flurry of activity over the next four days. Apart from plenaries, there are over 170 side events hosted by youth, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, and universities, covering a range of issues from renewable energy to climate financing.

They have been reminded by Prime Minister Gaston Browne that this is a crucial juncture in the history of small island developing states, where “actions, or failure to act, will dictate the fate of SIDS and the legacy left for future generations.”

IPS UN Bureau Report

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Slovakia PM Assassination Attempt Sparks Journalists’ Safety Fears

Editors’ Choice, Europe, Featured, Freedom of Expression, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Freedom of Expression

Camera crews wait outside the Slovak parliament building in Bratislava days after the attempted assassination of PM Robert Fico. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

Camera crews wait outside the Slovak parliament building in Bratislava days after the attempted assassination of PM Robert Fico. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

BRATISLAVA, May 24 2024 (IPS) – Fears for the safety of journalists in Slovakia are growing in the wake of an assassination attempt on the country’s prime minister, which some politicians are blaming in part on local independent media.

Relations between some media and members of the governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party, have become increasingly tense since the government came to power in October last year.


And immediately after Fico was shot and seriously injured on May 15, as he greeted members of the public after a government meeting, senior members of coalition parties linked the attack to critical coverage of Fico and accused outlets of spreading hate against him.

The 71-year-old man who shot the prime minister is thought to have had a political motive for his attack.

Since then, there have been calls from some other politicians and heads of media organizations to stop trying to apportion blame for the attack on any group so as to defuse tensions in society.

But senior figures from governing coalition parties have continued to attack the media for what they see as their role in fomenting anger towards the government and provoking the tragedy.

Journalists in Slovakia, and press freedom watchdogs, worry this is increasing the risk reporters could also become targets of a violent attack.

“Journalists are in no way responsible for this, and blaming them is only fueling the fires and increasing the likelihood of another violent incident,” Oliver Money-Kyrle, Head of European Advocacy and Programmes at the International Press Institute (IPI), told IPS.

For many years, Fico and his Smer party, who have been in power for much of the last 18 years in Slovakia, have publicly attacked individual media, and specific journalists in some cases, for their critical reporting of the various governments he has led.

When Jan Kuciak, a reporter investigating alleged corruption by people close to Fico’s government, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were murdered in 2018, critics said Fico’s rhetoric towards journalists had contributed to creating an atmosphere in society in which those behind the killings believed they could act with impunity.

Fico was forced to step down as PM not long after the murders, following massive public protests against his government.

But since returning to power, he and other members of the ruling coalition have repeatedly attacked journalists they see as critical of the government and his party has refused to communicate with certain newspapers and broadcasters.

The government has also pushed through legislation that media freedom organizations and members of the European Commission have warned could severely restrict independent media and press freedom.

Some journalists at major news outlets have been regularly receiving death threats and facing horrific online harassment for years, but others have said they have become increasingly worried for their safety in recent months, and that those concerns have been exacerbated now in the wake of Fico’s shooting.

Many believe that years of aggressive, derogatory rhetoric against them has made them a target for hate among some parts of a society with widespread distrust of media—a recent survey showed only 37 percent of Slovaks trust the media.

Since the assassination attempt, some newsrooms have taken extra security measures and the government has said it will also be providing extra protection for groups which could be facing an elevated safety risk, including media.

While this has been welcomed by media rights organizations, they have said politicians must take the lead in reducing tensions in society and lessening immediate safety risks for journalists.

“The way to de-escalate the situation is that political hate speech against media must stop,” Pavol Szalai, head of the EU/Balkans desk at RSF at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS.

In the immediate hours after the shooting, some ministers appeared to be pushing to calm the situation.  At a press conference, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok appealed “to the public, to journalists, and to all politicians to stop spreading hatred”.

Meanwhile, dozens of editors from print and broadcast media issued a joint statement publicly condemning the attack on the prime minister and calling for politicians and media to come together to calm tensions.

However, even days after the shooting, senior government figures continued to attack specific media or play down the seriousness  of comments made by colleagues just after the shooting, including  labelling media as “disgusting pigs”.

The Slovak government did not respond to questions on journalists’ safety from IPS.

But beyond putting journalists at increased risk, it is feared that the assassination attempt may also worsen what research has shown is significantly worsening media freedom in the country.

The government recently approved legislation – which is expected to be passed in parliament within weeks that will see the country’s public broadcaster, RTVS, completely overhauled and, critics say, effectively under control of the government.

Ominously, the leader of the governing coalition Slovak National Party (SNS), Andrej Danko, warned after Fico was shot that there would “be changes to the media” now.

And on May 19, speaking on the TA3 private news channel, he said he was planning to propose legislation that would set new regulations governing journalistic ethics, relations between journalists and politicians, and what politicians would be obliged to “put up with” from journalists.

Beata Balogova, Editor in Chief of the Sme daily newspaper, one of the news outlets in the country regularly criticized by government politicians, told international media that the government could now introduce “brutal measures against the media.”

Local journalists say any repressive measures would make an already difficult job even harder.

“I haven’t thought about how things could get more difficult for us to do our work in the future because it’s already very hard. It’s so difficult to gather news with political parties refusing to speak to us. [More restrictions] certainly wouldn’t make things easier,” Michaela Terenzani, an editor at Sme, told IPS.

She added, though, that it was difficult to predict what would happen in the coming days and weeks.

“At the moment, we are all just getting over the shock and trying to get on with our work as best we can. This is a major moment in Slovakia’s history and we will have to see what happens with relations between the media and politicians. Everyone is calling for calm, and I hope that is what we get,” she said.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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SBSTTA and SBI—Biodiversity Meetings Crucial for the Global South Begin

Africa, Biodiversity, Conferences, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Biodiversity

More than 1,400 delegates are present at two crucial meetings, where the topic of preserving the planet’s ongoing biodiversity for the benefit of humanity is under discussion. Under the spotlight are the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, synthetic biology, the detection and identification of living modified organisms, and, critically, biodiversity and health.

Over 1,400 delegates, including 600 representing parties or signatories from over 150 countries and a significant delegation of Indigenous Peoples and other observer organizations, including women’s groups are attending two crucial biodiversity meetings in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Over 1,400 delegates, including 600 representing parties or signatories from over 150 countries and a significant delegation of Indigenous Peoples and other observer organizations, including women’s groups are attending two crucial biodiversity meetings in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

NAIROBI, May 14 2024 (IPS) – The 26th meeting of the Subsidiary Body of Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advisors (SBSTTA) of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) started in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday. Over 1,400 delegates, including 600 representing signatories or parties from over 150 countries, are present for the seven-day meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A large number of members from Indigenous Peoples and other observer organizations, including women’s groups, are also attending the meetings.


SBSTTA will be followed by the meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI), another subsidiary body of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The SBI will take place from May 20–29 at the same venue.

Opening the meeting on Monday morning, David Cooper, the Acting Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, called on the delegates for a successful meeting.

“A key part of ensuring the implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework is to monitor the progress and that’s why finalizing a monitoring framework includes authenticators for the parties to report on. I would like to give my sincere appreciation to all those working on putting together a comprehensive set of authenticators. I encourage you to make full use of what we have achieved so far and let’s make this meeting a success,” Cooper said.

IPS, which is exclusively covering the meetings, has insights into the meetings and presents here the brief history of both the meetings and their significance in larger global biodiversity protection, especially in the global south, including the implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), the legally binding international biodiversity treaty adopted by the nations in December 2022

SBSTTA: History, Mandate and Role in the COP

SBSTTA was established 30 years ago, in 1994, as a subsidiary body of the CBD during the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD in Nassau, Bahamas. Article 25 of the CBD, which mandated its creation, tasked it with giving the COP timely advice regarding the application of the Convention.

Since then, SBSTTA ‘s main role has been providing assessments of scientific, technical, and technological information relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. It typically meets once or twice a year to review and assess relevant scientific information, including reports submitted by Parties, relevant organizations, and stakeholders. Its discussions cover a wide range of topics, including biodiversity loss, ecosystem services, invasive species, genetic resources, and biotechnology.

The main output of SBSTTA meetings is a set of recommendations to the COP, which are based on the scientific and technical assessments conducted during its sessions. These recommendations provide guidance to Parties and other stakeholders on key issues related to the implementation of the CBD.

For example, in 2007, SBSTTA recommended that the biodiversity COP consider the potential impacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity and ecosystems and encourage Parties to undertake further research, risk assessments, and regulatory measures to address any potential risks associated with the release of synthetic organisms into the environment.

This recommendation was later taken up by the CBD COP, leading to the adoption of decisions on synthetic biology, including Decision XIII/17, which encouraged Parties to continue their efforts to address the potential positive and negative impacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity, and take a  precautionary approach.

A more recent example is the SBSTTA’s recommendation from 2018 that the COP should encourage Parties to mainstream biodiversity considerations into sectoral and cross-sectoral policies, plans, and programs, including those pertaining to agriculture, fisheries, forestry, tourism, energy, and infrastructure.

The CBD COP later agreed with this suggestion, which led to the adoption of decisions and guidelines on mainstreaming biodiversity across sectors. One of these was Decision XIV/4, which asked Parties to do more to mainstream biodiversity into relevant sectors and to encourage synergies between the goals of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation.

SBSTTA and Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

SBSTTA-26 has a large number of issues on its agenda. Most prominent among them are: 1) creating a monitoring framework for the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework; 2) synthetic biology; 3) detection and identification of living modified organisms; and 4) biodiversity and health.

It is expected that under the detection and identification of living modified organisms, genetically engineered mosquitoes for Malaria prevention will be discussed. Research on genetically engineered mosquitoes for malaria control has been an area of interest and investigation for several years, although little information is available on it in the public domain.

Scientists in many countries, including in the United States and Brazil, have been exploring various genetic modification techniques to create mosquitoes that are resistant to the malaria parasite or are unable to transmit the disease. One approach involves genetically modifying mosquitoes to produce antibodies that neutralize the malaria parasite when it enters their bodies.

The other approach is to use “Gene Drive Technology,” which involves modifying mosquitoes in a way that ensures the modified genes are passed on to a high proportion of their offspring. Already, many field trials of genetically engineered mosquitoes have been conducted or are underway in different parts of the world, most notably those conducted by the company Oxitec in Brazil and the Cayman Islands.

At the SBSTTA, scientific and technical advisors will look closely at the important environmental and ethical considerations related to GE mosquitoes. According to the World Health Organization’s 2023 World Malaria Report, there has been an increase in malaria infections all over the world as a result of climate change. However, several countries and organizations have serious reservations against the release of GM mosquitoes, which they believe may have an irreversible and devastating impact on local biodiversity. One of the most vocal organizations against GE/GM mosquitoes has been Friends of the Earth, a US-based environmental advocacy group. Dana Perls, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, said, “Significant scientific research on genetically engineered mosquitoes is still needed to understand the potential public health and environmental threats associated with the release of this novel genetically engineered insect.”

The SBSTTA is expected to witness passionate discussions, especially from environmental NGOs and faith-based organizations, including the need to ensure that communities are properly informed and engaged in decision-making processes, especially in the global south.

The agenda for the meetings includes creating a monitoring framework for the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, synthetic biology, detection and identification of living modified organisms, and biodiversity and health. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

The agenda for the meetings includes creating a monitoring framework for the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, synthetic biology, detection and identification of living modified organisms, and biodiversity and health. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

SBI: Most Crucial Agenda Items

The SBI was established under the CBD during the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD in 1996. The SBI’s mandate includes providing guidance and recommendations to the COP on matters related to the implementation of the CBD as well as identifying obstacles and challenges that may hinder effective implementation.

Like SBSTTA, SBI also typically meets once or twice a year to conduct its work. Its discussions cover a wide range of topics related to the implementation of the CBD, including national biodiversity strategies and action plans, financial resources and mechanisms, capacity-building, and technology transfer.

Chaired by Chirra Achalender Reddy of India, the SBI in Nairobi has placed several items on its agenda. However, the most crucial ones among them are: 1) resource mobilization and financial mechanisms; 2) a review of the progress in national target setting; and 3) the updating of national biodiversity strategies and action plans.

As IPS recently reported, only a handful of countries have so far been able to submit their updated biodiversity action plans, while the rest are said to be facing multiple challenges in doing so, including a lack of capacity. In fact, Kenya, the host country of these meetings, has not been able to submit their updated action plan yet.

On Monday, in her inaugural address during the opening ceremony of SBSTTA, Ingrid Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP, acknowledged that a lack of capacity to revise and update their action plans has been reported by several member states. “Capacity building is a serious issue and at the SBSTTA and SBI, this will be seriously discussed,” Andersen said.

David Ainsworth, the Communications Director of UNCBD, said that the capacity is lacking in several areas, including communications (where countries do not know how to communicate to different ministries the need for working together to develop their biodiversity action plans), finance (lack of funding, budgetary constraints), and knowledge.

“Perhaps the most crucial of these is finance and this will be seriously discussed at the SBI,” Ainsworth said.

IPS UN Bureau Report